By Paul Goble
Moscow outlets are reacting with outrage as they typically do to any case where borders are shown in a different place than Russia imagines them to be. In this case, they are upset about a map released by Kazakhstan showing the borders of that country to include portions of Russia, Uzbekistan and China (regnum.ru/news/polit/2321766.html).
Not too much should be made of this map, but it does have the virtue of attracting more attention to something that otherwise might have been ignored: the revival of Karakalpak nationalist separatism in Uzbekistan following the death of Islam Karimov, a revival that more than one capital has an interest in.
Karakalpakia, on the shores of the former Aral Sea, is one of the poorest regions in Central Asia, with extremely high death rates and extraordinarily short life expectancies. But most important from a geopolitical standpoint, it has been a political football between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with Moscow using it to promote its interests.
Until 1924, Karakalpak lands lay within the boundaries of historically Kazakh areas. Only in 1925 did they become part of the Kyrgyz ASSR, and only in 1936 was their region shifted to become part of the Uzbek SSR (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/06/karakalpak-separatists-in-uzbekistan.html).
In Soviet times, activists say, the standard of living in Uzbekistan and consequently of Karakalpakia was higher than that in Kazakhstan and so the Karakalpaks were happy to live under Tashkent. There was almost no interest in separatism, but the disappearance of the Aral Sea and the collapse of the standard of living in Karakalpakia has changed that.
In 1992, Karakalpakia, which covers roughly a third of Uzbekistan’s land area, declared its independence “within Uzbekistan,” an act that had few concrete consequences at the time but that did enshrine as constitutional the right of the Karakalpaks to secede, something that the union republics had had in Soviet times from the USSR.
Over the last two decades, statistics show, the standard of living in Kazakhstan rose while that in Karakalpakia fell; and consequently, some Karakalpaks began to talk about having their republic return to Kazakhstan. But Uzbek President Islam Karimov used force to crack down on any expressions of such desires.
In 1993, Tashkent and Nukus signed an inter-governmental agreement which specified that Karakalkapstan would remain in Uzbekistan for 20 years. That term ran out in 2013, but Tashkent ignored calls of activists for a referendum. The activists said they had growing support and that only Karimov’s dictatorship was keeping them from realizing their rights.
Some in Karakalpakstan were encouraged by Russia’s Anschluss of Crimea as a possible future for themselves, and both they and others may have been pushing this idea given Moscow’s long tradition of using Karakalpak separatism against Tashkent for its pro-Western positions (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/11/window-on-eurasia-moscow-again-focusing.html).
Now that Karimov is gone, Karakalpak activists hope to exploit the situation. As the Qazaq Times reports, Aman Sagidullayev, a leader of the national movement who was forced to emigrate by Tashkent, has appealed to the OSCE to arrange a dialogue between Nukus, the capital of his republic, and Tashkent (qazaqtimes.com/article/22506 and ratel.kz/raw/karakalpakskie_oppozitsionery_zagovorili_o_prisoedinenii_k_kazahstanu).
In his appeal, Sagidullayev argues that “Tashkent is conducting an occupation policy toward the 1.8 million people” of Karkalpakstan and makes 11 demands, the fulfillment of which are needed to end what he calls “the slavery” of the Karakalpak people” and the achievement of national self-determination.
Among his demands are the removal of all Uzbek military and security personnel from Karakalpakstan, freedom of speech, integration with Kazakhstan, free elections, membership of the new republic in the UN and the OSCE, and also allowing human rights monitors to visit the state on a regular basis.
Despite the map, Kazakhstan is unlikely to encourage these goals, at least in public; but Moscow may be happy to have this case arise again in order to remind the new president of Uzbekistan that Russia has levers that it can use against Tashkent. (On earlier cases, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/05/window-on-eurasia-some-karakalpaks-now.html.)